After Harold Dieterle walked away victorious from the first season of Bravo’s Top Chef, people expected him, he says, to open a massive restaurant in Times Square, one where he could put himself onstage in an open kitchen and smile benevolently down upon his fans. That’s not his personality, though, and so instead he opened Perilla (9 Jones Street, 212-929-6868) in a small Greenwich Village space, serving 18 tables and 10 bar seats New American cuisine that now skews Mediterranean. A few years later, he expanded to Kin Shop (469 Sixth Avenue, 212-675-4295), an outlet for his abiding interest in Asian flavors. And then there was the Marrow, a West Village restaurant that pulls from his German and Italian roots. (That joint never quite clicked, though, and just closed.)
And so Dieterle has a formidable presence in New York City — but it’s one of a successful chef and restaurateur, rather than an over-polished celebrity.
He was always into eating, he says, and the Italian-American fare his grandparents used to serve him made an especial impression on him as a child. It wasn’t until he took a home economics class — “to meet girls,” he recalls — that he discovered he might actually like to cook, too. His first lesson was in making fried chicken, and after that, he began organizing his class schedule around cooking time. In high school, he spent half his day at a technical school, where he refined his skills — before cutting the rest of his academic classes.
Meanwhile, he took dishwashing jobs on Long Island and dedicated his summers to working in the kitchen. When he graduated, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, a move, he says, that helped him focus. “I needed someone to tell me what to do,” he says. “If I tried to do the school of hard knocks in New York City at 17 or 18, I would have been a drug addict and alcoholic.” After an internship on Fire Island and jobs in other restaurants in the city, he landed at the Harrison in Tribeca, where he thrived under Jimmy Bradley and Joe Campanaro. “They really empowered me to run the business,” he says.
For the last seven years, Dieterle has been focused on building his own empire. To that end, he has just released a cookbook, Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook, which he hopes will help home cooks prepare meals more like a chef.
So tell me about your new cookbook.
I’d come to notice that every chef has a notebook — it’s where they jot notes, write recipes, and some people do illustrations. My books are usually part diary through my travels, to remind me of what I’ve eaten. And there are lists of ingredients for dishes that I conceive. I take those lists and try to make the dishes. If it’s a good dish, I write recipes for it. If it’s not, the Sharpie goes through it. When it comes to home cooking, I constantly hear, “I want to learn to cook more and do more, but I’m scared to jump into the deep end because I’m afraid of messing up.” So the idea with this book was to take 100 base recipes and 100 notebook entries and help home cooks think about food a little differently. And maybe push them into trying notebook entries. One of the fun recipes I have, for instance, is house-made ricotta toast with truffle honey. So I have my ricotta recipe. But then I also give three to five different ways to use that ricotta — cannoli, pasta, lasagna. I do that with a bunch of things. When you’re trying to cook for a recipe out of the book, you always have leftover ingredients, and you’re like, “What am I supposed to do with that?” I try to give people a way to use it.
How long did it take to write the book?
Two and a half years. It was so much work, especially because I have ADD — you’re writing the recipes, testing forever, and then shooting the pictures, and I don’t use a food stylist. I did the book with Andrew Friedman — he came up with the notebook entry idea. I helped Jimmy Bradley write his cookbook and test it. I think if you haven’t done that before, you shouldn’t try to do a cookbook. That’s the tedious part. You’re trying to measure exactly and think like a home cook.
Have some advice for a home cook?
Don’t be scared. If you want to get better, you have to take the leap of faith. If you mess up, it’s just food — you have to break a lot of eggs before you can make a nice omelet.
Can you tell me a bit about opening Perilla? How has it evolved?
It took a year to raise money and find location. When you’re a first timer, landlords are skeptical, so we lost out on a couple of deals. But then I met this landlord who was an old school Sicilian guy, and we shook hands and started drawing up the lease. Perilla then was New American with a lot of Asian ingredients on the menu. Now I have [Kin Shop], which is an outlet for Asian cooking, so we’ve gone more Mediterranean over there now. Perilla has always been based around good ingredients and responsible cooking, and there are some signatures that will never come off the menu. We made our original sous chef a partner, and he’s now the chef de cuisine, and his personality and ideas are on the menu, too. I very rarely tell him he can’t do something.
When did you start thinking about a second restaurant?
I wanted to do more, we had great people, and we wanted them to do more stuff. For them to make more money and get more responsibility, [partner Alicia Nosenzo and I] have to be out of the building for that to happen. I wanted to focus and cook [Asian] food more seriously. I got married right as we opened Kin Shop. It was pretty stressful, but great. Alicia did a great job managing, and we had a great contractor. Until we started to get reviews, we were not busy. Our first review was from Serious Eats, and they said nice things, and from then forward, we were busy. We were not prepared to do that level of business; we were blindsided.
Why were you interested in exploring Asian flavors?
I was always into Asian food and Asian culture. When I was working at the Harrison, and Jimmy [Bradley] did not want those flavors on his menu. Jimmy would say, “Your mom’s Sicilian, your dad’s German, why are you cooking Asian food? Do schnitzel, or Italian.” But I didn’t want to hear about it. I took my first trip to Thailand in 2003. I went there for a couple of weeks, and it was an amazing experience. I did the trip on my own; I didn’t have a guide or anything. I spent some time in some kitchens picking herbs and grinding paste. Then in 2007, we were considering doing a sandwich shop and wine bar. I had someone who offered to take me to Thailand in exchange for some press dinners — came back and decided that this was what I wanted to cook.
So the Marrow came from your roots?
Yeah, I took my Italian side and German side, and we had the menu split half and half. It was a little bit more approachable, but people were very confused when they ate there. So it became more New American than it was. At the end of the day, we’re neighborhood restaurateurs, and we need neighborhood support, so we listen to neighborhood feedback.
But sadly, you were forced to close.
We love the neighborhood; it just really came down that the restaurant wasn’t as busy as we anticipated it would be.
When you say feedback — does that mean you’re reading online reviews?
We have someone in the office looking at all the online reviews, and some are painful to read. It’s like, how did you experience that? There are other people who write with passion about something they had eight months ago. I’m like, how do you remember this? That dish hasn’t been on the menu for months. But it’s a great way for guests to give feedback. These days, you get reviewed, and reviewers give you less time now than they ever have. If you have a creative and ambitious food and drink program, your menu is constantly evolving, so a food critic’s review is going to come out, and those dishes aren’t going to be on the menu in six months. [Yelp and OpenTable] are a good way to get constant reviews — you can see dishes that are popular and not popular.
And that’s better than feedback at the table.
Nine out of 10 times, when you go to a table and ask if diners are enjoying everything, they’re not honest. It’s frustrating — we want that opportunity to fix something immediately. I’m a strong believer in taking care of the guest. If someone doesn’t like something, I’ll make them something else. Special requests, if I can accommodate them, I’ll accommodate them.
What did Top Chef do for your career?
It was a really amazing experience. None of us knew what we were getting into. We were guinea pigs; this was Bravo’s first food show. So there were learning pains, but they do a really good job. It was a great experience from a press standpoint — it gave me the platform to launch a project, and a name to raise money, even though it was still really difficult. That was really the only food competition show that had been produced, so people had their noses in the air when I did it, but now every chef is doing it. I get it — aside from cooking in that competition, I hadn’t done anything; I was a sous chef at the Harrison, and then I was getting all this press. But everyone competes now — that’s the way the world is.
Care to freestyle a bit about the state of the restaurant industry here in NYC?
I think that doing business in New York is becoming more challenging on a lot of levels. And I mean specifically in Manhattan — I see people moving up to Westchester, or out to Brooklyn and New Jersey. The cost of doing business is going up, and our growth isn’t matching the increase. The health department makes things very difficult. The lack of consistency among the inspectors is very challenging. And the workforce is hard, too — the cost of living here is high; it’s a tough lifestyle. People can go work in such amazing restaurants throughout the country, so they say, “I don’t want to deal with New York.” I’m a New Yorker, but for people from the Midwest, life is different here, and life is tough.I would like to see culinary schools ingrain a better work ethic and level of professionalism. When I’m setting interviews up, I get people who don’t respond to emails or phone calls, or who don’t come in for trails after they’ve scheduled them. I’m just old school, I guess. I got beaten up as a young cook. I don’t want to beat cooks up, but I have certain standards.
Is there anything to be done about those problems?
I feel like the Restaurant Association doesn’t really have much power — landlords are going to be greedy and get what they can for their locations, which makes it very difficult for restaurants to survive. Prime resale estate goes to a Duane Reade or a bank, because they can pay a ton of money in rent. If the Restaurant Association had a little more juice to deal with the health department, the department of buildings, and the other agencies, we would feel like we had someone on our side that could do something for us — but that’s just not there.
Any advice for people getting into the industry?
When I meet people who have PR, advertising, or finance jobs and make a really nice living, but that want to go to culinary school and be a cook, I tell them that it’s really hard. I’m not saying don’t follow your dream, but to go from $200,000 a year to less than $50,000 a year is tough. And being a cook is rough — it’s a young man’s sport. I don’t have the stamina I had when I was in my 20s. So I advise people to do it on a part-time level to see if it’s really what they want.
What do you like about doing this?
The change of seasons. I’m thinking about what my minter menu is going to look like, so I’m following ingredient availability. And I like having cooks call me out on things they want to cook. I give them the opportunity to curate a dish based on what they want to cook. We have a team atmosphere in the kitchen.
Where do you go from here?
The cookbook is my focal point — I have a lot of responsibilities based around that launch. I’m pretty buried until after the new year. I’m pretty happy with where I am — I love cooking in our restaurants. I wouldn’t mind getting back on TV, but I don’t know how or what; I’m semi-retired from competitive cooking scene. Maybe some sort of cooking and fishing variety show, but I don’t know what that looks like.
So you’re really into fishing?
I go once a week, always saltwater. I grew up fishing on Long Island, and now I’m in Brooklyn. I schedule a fishing trip every time I take a vacation. It’s spirtual for me — it’s very calm on the water.